Reuben's Home Inspection Blog

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How to spot a buried fuel oil tank

If you're buying an old house in the Twin Cities with pipes sticking out of the ground in your yard, heads up.  You might have an oil tank somewhere at the property.   While the vast majority of homes in the Twin Cities are heated with natural gas, there is still a small percentage of homes in the metro area that are heated with fuel oil, and far more properties with abandoned oil tanks.

When a home gets converted from fuel oil to natural gas, the fuel oil tank becomes abandoned.  Once the tank is abandoned, it needs to be dealt with.

When tanks are abandoned

If the tank is buried, it needs to be removed or filled in place  If a fuel oil tank is left buried, it could eventually leak.  A leaking underground storage tank (LUST) can contaminate the soil as well as the home, creating an environmental hazard that can cost a ridiculous amount of money to clean up.  You can visit the EPA's web site on LUSTs for more info.

Oil TankWhen a tank is located inside the house but not buried, it needs to be properly disconnected, and sometimes removed.  A fuel oil tank takes up a large amount of room, so most people choose to have them removed, but requirements vary from city to city.  For example, once a fuel oil tank is abandoned in Minneapolis, it needs to be removed from the property.  This is written in to their Truth-In-Sale of Housing Evaluator Guidelines under item #25.  The guidelines state:

"The evaluator shall determine if there are any abandoned fuel oil tanks. If found, mark as RRP or RRE. A licensed contractor must properly remove them. (A permit is not needed if the tank is less than 200 gallons.). (Per Uniform Fire Code Sec. 79 and Mpls. Code 48.145)"

Another option for an abandoned fuel oil tank is to stick it out in your front yard and paint it like a cow.  You might think I'm kidding, but I've seen it done more than once.

Fuel oil tank painted like a cow, courtesy of Scott Graham

Clues to a buried fuel oil tank

The easiest way to identify a potential buried fuel oil tank is to look for a fill pipe and vent pipe at the exterior of the home.  Sometimes the pipes will go through the foundation wall of the home.

Oil Fill Pipes

Sometimes they just go down in to the ground.

Oil fill pipes2

When fuel oil tanks are removed, the fill and vent pipes need to be removed or cut off and filled with concrete.  If you find pipes sticking out of the ground or foundation wall like the ones shown above, it probably means one of two things: either the tank is still there, or it was removed by a hack.  No professional oil tank removal contractor is going to leave the vent and fill pipes looking like that.

According to Dean Nething of Dean's Tanks, there were many 'erroneous deliveries' that happened during the 60's and 70's, where one house address got confused with another.  About once a year, a basement would get contaminated with hundreds of gallons of fuel oil.  In every one of these cases, the contamination was so bad that the fuel oil company, Standard Oil, had to buy the property so they could tear it down and dig out the basement.  This is why the fill pipes always need to be removed when the tank is removed.

When the pipes are right next to each other like in the photos above, there's a good chance that the fuel oil tank is (or was) located inside the house or under the house.  When the pipes are separated from each other, there's a very good possibility that there's a buried fuel oil tank in the yard.  The photo below came from a house in Minneapolis - these pipes led to a 1,000 gallon tank buried in the yard.

Buried Oil Tank

Here's another example - the fill and vent pipes were located in the front yard behind some bushes at a home in Edina.  These innocuous, nearly hidden pipes led to an enormous buried tank in the front yard.

Fill pipes in front yard

There are a few diagrams floating around online that show an indoor style of tank buried in the ground, like the big green one that I showed at the beginning of this post.   Those indoor style of tanks are extremely unusual to find buried - or according to Dean's Tank, "once in a blue moon".  The vast majority of buried tanks look a lot more like big drums, like the ones shown below.  These photos are courtesy of Dean's Tank.

Oil tank being removed

Oil tank being removed2

Oil tank being removed3

Oil tank removed 4

Here's another example of pipes sticking out of the ground leading to a buried oil tank in the yard.  In this particular case, the fill pipe had a cap that could be opened.  I stuck my tape measure down the pipe, and it came out soaked in fuel oil.  It smelled like fuel oil for the next two weeks, despite my half-hearted efforts to clean it off.  Fuel oil has a strong odor, and takes a long time to go away.  It's easy to understand how a leaking tank can create such a nasty problem.

Buried oil tank outdoors

The person buying this home had the sellers remove the tank; here's what the site looked like after the tank was removed.

Oil tank removed

What to do if you suspect a buried oil tank

If you suspect a buried oil tank, call Dean's Tank, Inc.  They've been specializing in fuel oil tank removal / abandonment in the Twin Cities for over 25 years.  If a fuel oil tank has been professionally removed from a property, there's a good chance that this was the company that did it.  To determine if a fuel oil tank is present, they'll come out and do a site inspection for $200.

Dean estimates his company has removed between ten and twenty thousand tanks.  The cost of removing a buried fuel oil tank varies greatly from property to property, but costs will typically range from $2,000 to $3,000.  Having a tank filled in place typically costs just a little bit less.

According to Dean and Minnesota Real Estate Attorney John Braun, some homeowners may qualify for free oil tank removal by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, but certain conditions apply.  You can read more about this program in the first link included at the end of this post under 'Useful Links'.

Buried Fuel Oil Tanks and Home Inspection Standards

Home Inspection Standards of Practice specifically state that buried fuel oil tanks are not something that home inspectors are required to inspect.  Here's some SOP language from different home inspection organizations:

  • ASHI:  Inspectors are NOT required to inspect: underground items including, but not limited to underground storage tanks or other underground indications of their presence, whether abandoned or active.
  • NAHI: The inspector is not required to record location of any on-site visible fuel tanks within or directly adjacent to the structure.
  • InterNACHI: The inspector is not required to inspect fuel tanks or underground or concealed fuel supply systems.
Does this mean that if a home inspector sees obvious clues that a buried fuel oil tank is present, they should keep their mouth shut?  Heck no.  A buried fuel oil tank is important to know about when buying a house.  If a home inspector has enough experience to suspect a buried fuel tank, they should say so, even though they're not required to.
 
Useful Links:

Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections

        

Comment balloon 41 commentsReuben Saltzman • November 28 2012 03:02AM

Comments

Reminded me when I was once in the buying end of a property with a buried tank.  . it killed my deal. .

Posted by Fernando Herboso - Broker for Maxus Realty Group, 301-246-0001 Serving Maryland, DC and Northern VA (Maxus Realty Group - Broker 301-246-0001) over 5 years ago

Fernando - I can understand how that would happen.  They're expensive enough to remove when they're in perfect condition.  Throw a leak in to the mix... look out.

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) over 5 years ago

Good morning Reuben - excellent advice, and information I wish I had known back in the early 1990s when I bought a house with an oil tank, much to my surprise. Love the cow!

Posted by Wayne and Jean Marie Zuhl, The Last Names You'll Ever Need in Real Estate (Samsel & Associates) over 5 years ago
Reuben, living in central Texas we 're not exposed to many if any buried oil fuel tanks but your blog is good tuff for any state when inspecting properties and I especially loved the art cow created from one old tank.
Posted by Bob Ratliff, "Sold on Bob" (CB Stagecoach ) over 5 years ago

Wayne & Jean - I hope it didn't cost you too much.

Bob - thanks!

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) over 5 years ago

Thanks for the post. I will bookmark this and look for these signs when I show old homes where they converted to gas heat.

Posted by Gita Bantwal, REALTOR,ABR,CRS,SRES,GRI - Bucks County & Philadel (RE/MAX Centre Realtors) over 5 years ago
I run in to this program over and over so many old oil tanks in this area and so costly to have them removed Love the cow!
Posted by Lori Williams, Lake Wylie, Gastonia, SW Charlotte, Homes for Sale (Lake Wylie, Charlotte, Gastonia Homes for Sale ABR, CDPE, SFR, ASP, Lori@LoriWilliamsRealty.com) over 5 years ago

Not a big issue in central Illinois, but man o man, does that look like big $$$$.

Posted by Scott Seaton Jr. Bourbonnais Kankakee IL Home Inspector, The Home Inspector With a Heart! (SLS Home Inspections-Bradley Bourbonnais Kankakee Manteno) over 5 years ago

Sometimes you never know....a lot of people removed all signs of the tank and just left it in the ground...over time it will rust...just hope there is not more than a gallon of oil in it. If you do remove it an one spot of oils is spotted on the soil the EPA police make life very hard for you.

Posted by Edward Gilmartin (CRE) over 5 years ago

Hi Rueben,

Very rare here for anyone to have a Fuel oil heater in Southern New Mexico. But when i was inspecting in Michigan, they were all over the place. Here we run into abandoned septics, grease pits and old wells.

Still just as big a safety concern.

Have a great day and a fantastic post.

Best, Clint McKie

Posted by Clint Mckie, Desert Sun Home, Comm. Inspection 1-575-706-5586 (Desert Sun Home, commercial Inspections) over 5 years ago

I couldn't help but think if someone discovered these abandoned buried metal monsters thousands of years from now and wonder just what were they?

Posted by Richie Alan Naggar, agent & author (people first...then business Ran Right Realty ) over 5 years ago

Good morning Reuben,

It just goes to show you things are different when you move from State to State or City to City. Always wise to investigate what source of heating one will be looking at when relocating!!

Posted by Dorie Dillard, Serving Buyers & Sellers in NW Austin Real Estate (Coldwell Banker United Realtors® ~ 512.346.1799) over 5 years ago

Lust is one of the seven deadly sins. Thanks for the information!

We don't have too many, if any buried fuel tanks, but we do have buried septic tanks. Growing up, I once discovered our house had a septic system in it's past life by walking down the driveway into and one leg goes through the ground into what remained of the rusting septic system.

Posted by Dale Samples, REALTOR -Homes for Sale Charleston, West Virgini (304.741.4705 • www.dalesamples.com ) over 5 years ago

Excellent information I will forward it if that is ok? thank you!!!

Posted by Dave Sullivan, Michigan Realtor with an investor viewpoint (Real Estate One) over 5 years ago

Reuben, we lived in a couple of homes where we used fuel oil. Fortunately, the tanks were not buried.

Posted by Michael Setunsky, Your Commercial Real Estate Link to Northern VA over 5 years ago

Another option is to stick it in your front yard and paint it like a cow??  That made me LOL!!  

Seriously though, this is great information to know.  I appreciate you sharing this.  I have seen a few of these tanks in my time.  Mostly in basements.  I'll look for them in yards as wel.  Thanks!  

Posted by Amanda Christiansen, Christiansen Group Realty (Christiansen Group Realty (260)704-0843) over 5 years ago

Good information.  Buried oil tanks can kill a deal very quickly.  Most agents around here put it in the listing so that potential buyers are aware.

Posted by Keith Lawrence, ABR, CDPE, SFR, 203K Specialist (RE/MAX Properties) over 5 years ago

I find a lot of buried tanks. I had one supposedly removed by the homeowner himself earlier this year. The vent was still in the ground. 

Posted by James Quarello, Connecticut Home Inspector (JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC) over 5 years ago

Great tips Reuben!! There's absolutely nothing worse then finding those pipes or tell tale signs of a buried oil tank!! Sure makes for an interesting deal :)

Posted by Donna Bacher, Broker (PureRealty Brokerage) over 5 years ago

I love this post and especially th eway you shared such great photos. I can't imagine any buyer would miss an undergrounds oil tank after reading your blog. I will definitely be sharing it with my clients.

Thanks!

 

Posted by Dana Hollish Hill, Lead Associate Broker (Hollish Hill Group, Keller William Capital Properties) over 5 years ago

When I see evidence, I never keep my mouth shut!

And those are some huge tanks there!

A cheese state is an obvious, but probably one of the few, areas where abandoned tanks would be painted to look like cows!

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) over 5 years ago

Love the cow idea - creative! In our area, a home just will not convey with an underground oil tank - needs to be removed and soil tested by the state.

Posted by Olga Simoncelli, CONSULTANT, Real Estate Services & Risk Management (Veritas Prime, LLC dba Veritas Prime Real Estate) over 5 years ago

I love the cow idea!  LOL  We don't run across too many buried oil tanks in our area, although, interestingly enough, there are a number of houses with oil tanks in their basements.  

Posted by Susan Haughton, Susan & Mindy Team...Honesty. Integrity. Results. (Long and Foster REALTORS (703) 470-4545) over 5 years ago

Haven't found one yet but I always identify any exyerior piping visible to be sure.

Posted by Robert Butler, Montreal Home Inspector | Aspect Inspection (Aspect Inspection) over 5 years ago

 I recnetly did an inspection on a home that had an oil furnace (we don't have too many of them here).  I looked all around for the tank and finally asked the home owner where it was.  He told me that it had been removed and that they were installing a new gas furnace next week.  I thought I was going blind for a while there.

Posted by Robert Sole (REM Inspections LLC) over 5 years ago

Thanks for the info and heads up, I had no idea about these types of things.  Good thing you're here to set us straight!

Posted by Shane Barker (Amerifirst Financial, INC.) over 5 years ago

Interesting! I would not have thought to check cut/abandoned pipes to see where the buried tanks might be.

Posted by Erica Ramus, MRE, Schuylkill County PA Real Estate (Erica Ramus - Ramus Realty Group - Pottsville, PA ) over 5 years ago

I love the cow idea. I've seen a few sitting in the yard but never painted. In Nevada if you don;t fill it your eligible for Superfund money to help with any soil contamination, If you fill it your not. With the price of oil going up I bet more people will be trying to look for alternatives.

Posted by Rob Ernst, Reno, NV-775-410-4286 Inspector & Energy Auditor (Certified Structure Inspector) over 5 years ago

I've written about this before and even included a video of a legal abandonment of an oil tank (foam) because we have a ton of them here on Long Island and people don't understand what to do. Great info.

Posted by Jill Sackler, LI South Shore Real Estate - Broker Associate (Charles Rutenberg Realty Inc. 516-575-7500) over 5 years ago

Reuben:

I had a listing with a buried oil tank.  The seller, who was the trustee selling the property.  He knew it was there but was not concerned about it.  The buyer had to have an inspection and testing of the dirt around the tank.  The buyer also discovered oil in the soil in a large building which must have been used as a garage sometime during its life.  This was a touchy transaction, but thankfully, the buyer went through with the purchase.  He had enough inspections to fell OK about buying the property.

Posted by Evelyn Kennedy, Alameda, Real Estate, Alameda, CA (Alain Pinel Realtors) over 5 years ago

Reuben - I recently had a sale where the sellers were assured that the tank had been removed before they bought the home.  Their attorney had not demanded any supporting paperwork.  When we went to sell the home, the first buyer demanded the paperwork BEFORE signing the contract, because they had the same issue in selling their home (an underground oil tank they they weren't aware of that became known upon inspection).  Imagine my seller's surprise in learning that while there was no tank, the Fire Marshall's office showed that there had been an oil spill from the previous tank that had never been remediated.  Yep, my sellers had to remove the above ground tank and remediate the soil.  Of course, they sued the previous sellers, but that will take time to resolve in the court system.

Posted by Gail Robinson, CRS, GRI, e-PRO Fairfield County, CT (William Raveis Real Estate) over 5 years ago

Gita - thanks!

Lori - yeah, they're not cheap to pull out.

Scott - they don't seem to be a big deal around here, but I probably run in to about ten a year.

Edward - I've heard that when the 'indoor' type tanks are buried, they mostly just turn in to dirt after a long time.  There's never anything left of 'em.

Clint - I'm glad this is one less thing for you to have to worry about :)

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) over 5 years ago

Richie - ha!  Good question.

Dale - everyone loves to discuss LUST events ;).  Bad times with your old septic system!

Dave - please do, thanks.

Michael - that makes it a lot easier to keep track of 'em ;)

Jared and Amanda - I've seen a lot of them painted like that photo.  I wish I had more photos to share.

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) over 5 years ago

Keith - that's a good idea.  Let people know what they're getting in to before everyone's time gets wasted.

James - ha!  Boy, that would take quite some effort to remove a tank but leave the vent in the ground.  I'd love to hear someone's explanation of how that was done.

Donna - definitely.

Dana - I don't understand how the obvious ones get missed either.

Jay - I'm sure those cows all came over from Wisconsin.

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) over 5 years ago

Olga - some municipalities in our area require soil testing under the tank.  Those get a bit more involved.

Susan - I probably find one or two of those a year.

Robert B - good to hear. Let me know if you ever do come across one.

Robert S - ha!  Must have been during the summer?

Shane - thanks.

 

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) over 5 years ago

Erica - you're not alone :)

Rob - I've gotta assume those things are hideously expensive to keep running.

Jill - I'll have to look that up.

Evelyn - Good to hear they discovered everything up front.

Gail - bad times!  How do people think they can just get away with hiding stuff like that?  How do they sleep?  

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) over 5 years ago

Ignoring the signs cold be a very costly thing for a buyer.  If it looks like a tank was once there care must be taken to make sure it has been dealt with.

Posted by William Feela, Realtor, Whispering Pines Realty 651-674-5999 No. (WHISPERING PINES REALTY) over 5 years ago

Rueben, really good post.  I'm in the South San Francisco Bay area and we don't have heating oil tanks.  But San Francisco, 50 miles north, requires a professional inspection for abandoned underground oil tanks as the pre-sale requirement for every real estate transaction.  We also obtain a report that contains all LUST sites, plus other environmental and natural hazards.

Posted by Lloyd Binen, Silicon Valley Realtor since 1976; 408-373-4411 (Certified Realty Services) over 5 years ago

Just after I read this blog I saw an oil tank on a lawn with cutouts to make a scary jack-o-lantern! I immediately thought of you.

Posted by Barbara Tattersall, GRI (Keller Williams Realty Metropolitan (Keene,NH)) over 5 years ago

Reuben, your posts are so informative! Thank you for sharing this information. I LOVE the cow tank photo!

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Posted by Vladislav Yakov 2 months ago

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